Author Jo Treggiari offers teen readers a dystopian adventure/romance in Ashes, Ashes, that in my opinion, had great potential but ultimately fails to meet the mark.
Four years after the severe weather began, a smallpox plague began to ravage society. The first wave of the plague killed many people but then it mutated and a second more devastating wave occurred in which most of the remaining population was killed. Only 1 out of a million people survived the second wave.
As the plague intensified, Lucy continued attending school never quite noticing that there were more and more empty desks. She was an outsider in high school, often going unnoticed by her peers. Posters of lists of symptoms appeared all over school. Lucy was repeatedly called to the health office for blood tests. The last time she was called for yet another blood sample, she'd discovered a thick dossier on her. When she was asked about why she had never been vaccinated, Lucy told them it was due to her older brother Alex's fatal reaction to a vaccination.
Lucy lost her superjock younger brother Rob, her brainiac older sister, Susan "Maggie" and both her parents. Eventually, Lucy left her family's home for the shelters in the city. Many of the highrises in New York city were massive concrete cairns containing the bodies of thousands of plague victims. Friendly bombing had turned areas of New York city into rubble. When the shelter she was living at was raided by "Sweepers", government workers searching for plague survivors, Lucy decided to strike out on her own.
She fled into the wilderness of Central Park, taking with her her mother's shawl, her father's hunting knife, a box of freeze-dried food, a bottle of spring water and her tenth-grade yearbook. She made herself a camp in the wilderness and this is where we find her when Ashes, Ashes opens.
However, the course of Lucy's life is changed once again when she goes out on a walk and is hunted by a pack of wild dogs. She is aided in escaping the dogs by a handsome young man named Aidan. He tells her that he's been watching her and that she is being hunted by the Sweepers who send out the dogs to find survivors. The Sweepers are the people who live in the Compound on Roosevelt Island where the smallpox hospital is located. Aidan encourages her to come live with his band of survivors. Although Lucy declines his invitation, when her home is destroyed days later, she decides she has had enough of living on her own and treks to the survivor's camp on Ward's Island.
But Aidan's camp isn't safe either and Lucy learns that there are frequent raids by the Sweepers who kidnap people and infect them with the plague. Lucy, Aidan and their fellow survivors decide to rescue a recent group of kidnapped children only to discover that the situation was a cleverly laid trap to catch Lucy, the sole unvaccinated survivor of the plague.
There's no doubt that Treggiari develops the setting of her story well with vivid descriptions of the destruction wreaked by the climate disasters and the rapid annihilation of the population by plague. Because Lucy spends the first part of the story alone, the first 100 pages or so lack dialogue for the most part. However, the author does manage to portray Lucy's resilience and strength of character in describing how she has survived for over a year by herself. Treggiari also utilizes detailed description and two major events to capture the reader's attention.
The middle section of the book deals primarily with Lucy's struggle to fit into Aidan's camp and details her growing attraction to Aidan. There is a strong development of conflict between Lucy and another survivor, Del who is also attracted to Aidan. I felt the author did a good job of portraying the difficulties survivors would have living in the post-apocalyptic wilderness as well as their fears and hopes.
The ending however, was less satisfying. Although suspenseful, the result was predictable and anti-climatic.
For those who might be puzzling over the book's title, Ashes, Ashes is a reference to a version of Ring Around the Rosy whose origins are traced back to the Great Bubonic Plague of London in 17th century England.
Ring around the rosy
A pocketful of posies
We all fall down!
The rosy red rash was a symptom of the plague, usually a rash with a ring around it. Posies were carried in pockets to ward off the smell of disease which was thought to be the way illness was transmitted. The ashes, ashes refers to the cremation of dead bodies, the blackening of the skin and so forth. Plague survivors in Ashes,Ashes are described as being hideously deformed, with blackened skin and red eyes.
Ashes, Ashes by Jo Treggiari
New York: Scholastic Press 2011